Malcolm Toms is a 2019 SFU staff Lifetime Achievement Award and a FASS lifetime contributions award winner. In his retirement, Toms looks forward to spending more time on his passion, playing the lute.

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SFU Lifetime Achievement Award winner Malcolm Toms retires from IT to music

February 03, 2020
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Malcolm Toms is retiring in March 2020 as the manager of Network Operations for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) where he has orchestrated solutions to computer problems big and small for staff, students and faculty who called on him in panicked desperation.

Consistently kind and unflappable in his response, Toms personified grace under pressure while patiently spending countless hours retrieving accidentally erased files, removing chocolate cake from floppy disks, getting smart phones to smarten up and advising us on the best computer technology for any given job.

His departure leaves big shoes to fill. It appears that FASS finally has an IT problem that Toms cannot solve.

“This has been a great place to work,” says Toms. “As I’ve reflected over the last little while as retirement looms, I will miss the people and the intellectual challenge of problem solving.”

It is said that listening well is an art; if this is so, then Malcolm Toms is a true artist.

“I haven’t seen much change in people over the years,” Toms says of his 39 year career at Simon Fraser University (SFU). “My experience is that everybody’s looking for the same thing. They’re looking to be heard. They’re looking to be treated with respect and to acknowledge that they exist.”

People may not have changed much during Toms’ time on Burnaby Mountain, but computers are radically different since he came to work in SFU’s Department of Psychology in 1980. In those days he was a programmer who wrote software for computers each the size of two refrigerators. When microcomputers came in (Apple II, Commodore 64 and IBM personal computers), he helped researchers learn how to use them to collect and analyze data. In 1995, Toms began working at the FASS Dean’s office to run the data communications network and desktop support.

Malcolm Toms Technology Grant

Malcolm requests that rather than giving him a gift at his retirement event on March 3, donations to the Malcolm Toms Technology Grant are welcome. The grant will assist FASS students with their technology needs in pursuing their education at SFU or to improve a student's educational experience through technology.

As with computers, so too has the university changed.

“When I came here SFU had a reputation for being a really top-notch liberal arts university,” he says. “Now, society is putting so many demands on people to get into science and technology fields, but my experience has been that people with a liberal arts background seem to fare better. I find that the STEM fields tend to make you focus a bit too much. It doesn’t make you think outside the box.”

He welcomes the growth of transdisciplinary collaboration among faculty across SFU, though, something he attributes to the improvement and increasing accessibility of technology.

Retirement will give Toms the opportunity to practice the lute more. He also plans to get back into playing the clarinet, perhaps in a small combo.

Toms admits that retirement is intimidating; he must now recreate himself: “How do I use my leisure time meaningfully?”

That shouldn’t be a problem for Toms, whose life derives much of its meaning from music. As a young man, he trained as a classical musician at the Royal Academy in the UK where he studied clarinet. But concerns over his ability to make a living as a musician propelled him to a career in computers back in the days of punch cards and paper tape. Although he still plays the clarinet, since 1985 it is the lute that is the love of Toms’ musical life.

“It’s a natural instrument for me to play,” he says. “The music is so interesting. Even though it’s from the Renaissance or the Baroque period where we tend to think of it being a very mechanistic style of music, there’s a huge amount of emotion in the music. I love this music. It’s introverted. It speaks to my personality in a very big way.”